Following high-profile ‘right to die’ cases, which have spawned extensive public debate, and two criminal ‘mercy killing’ cases which reached different verdicts on seemingly-similar facts, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has issued guidance on the factors which the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) will apply when determining whether to bring criminal charges against those involved or not.

The DPP draws a clear distinction between assisted suicide and ‘mercy killing’ and is unequivocal that the latter is murder or manslaughter under the law and will remain so. Assisting someone to commit suicide is a criminal offence, punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment. However, provided the guidelines are followed, criminal prosecution is unlikely.

These guidelines are of interest to the thousands of sufferers of terminal diseases – especially those in great pain – and their families.

The factors which make a prosecution more likely in assisted suicide cases relate mainly to situations in which:

the victim and suspect are not closely connected or payment was involved;
the victim was physically able to kill themself;
the victim was a minor; and
the assisted suicide appears to be part of an organised activity.

 The factors which will make a prosecution less likely are:

if the victim has a clear wish to die and made that known;
if the victim was physically unable to commit suicide;
if the victim had a severe degenerative illness, disability or incurable severe physical handicap;
if the suspect had sought to dissuade the victim from committing suicide;
if the suspect’s role was minor in assisting the suicide;
if the suspect was a close relative or friend of the victim and wholly motivated by compassion; and
if the suspect co-operates with the police.